Dental cavities are permanently damaged areas that often develop into holes in the enamel, or hard outer surface, of your teeth. Cavities are also known as tooth decay or caries. Anyone with teeth can get a cavity. They are most common in small children, teenagers, and older adults.
There are three types of cavities:
- smooth surface cavities, which appear on the sides of your teeth
- pit and fissure cavities, which appear on the bumpy surfaces on the top of your teeth
- root cavities, which appear over the roots of your teeth, below your gum line
How Do I Know If I Have a Cavity?
The symptoms of a dental cavity depend on the type of cavity and the severity of tooth decay. When a cavity first develops, you likely won’t even know it’s there.
When a cavity gets larger, you may experience:
- pain when biting down
- sensitivity to heat, cold, and sweets
- visible holes or black spots on your teeth
Regular dental exams, every six months or so, can help you catch any problems early. Finding a dental cavity before it starts causing you pain can help you avoid extensive damage and possible tooth loss. If you start feeling pain and aching in your mouth, see your dentist as soon as possible.
How Do Cavities Develop?
The cause of cavities is tooth decay. The hard surface, or enamel, of your teeth can become damaged over time. Bacteria, food particles, and naturally occurring acids form a sticky film called plaque that coats your teeth. The acid in plaque eventually starts to eat away at your enamel. Once the acid eats through your enamel, it starts to damage the underlying dentin. Dentin is the second softer layer of your teeth that’s more easily damaged.
If your tooth decay continues without treatment, the pulp, or inside, of your teeth may be affected. The pulp of your teeth houses blood vessels and nerves. When decay spreads to the pulp, it can cause nerve damage. The nerve damage results in pain, irritation, and swelling. When tooth decay becomes advanced, pus may form around the tooth as your immune system attempts to fight the decay. This buildup of pus causes bacteria.
How Can I Relieve My Symptoms?
Treatment of your dental cavity will depend on how severe your tooth decay is.
Fillings and Crowns
Your dentist may use a filling to repair the hole in your tooth. Fillings can be made out of a variety of materials, including amalgam (metal) or composite (resin). During a filling, your dentist removes the decayed portion of your tooth using a drill and fills the hole with the material. Crowns are used if a large amount of your tooth needs to be removed. Crowns are custom made from metal or porcelain. They usually cover the entire top surface of your tooth.
Root Canals and Extractions
If the decay reaches the inside of your tooth, a root canal may be necessary. Root canals involve removing the damaged nerve of your tooth and replacing it with a filling. Contrary to popular belief, root canals aren’t any more painful than regular fillings.
If your tooth is beyond repair, your dentist will perform an extraction, or tooth removal. Your dentist can surgically remove your tooth and replace it with a false one, if you desire.
Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral that can strengthen your tooth enamel. It makes your teeth more resistant to decay caused by acids and bacteria. Fluoride treatments can also reverse early signs of tooth decay.
What Can I Do to Keep Cavities From Forming?
Taking good care of your teeth is the best way to prevent cavities. Great cavity prevention starts at home, but regular dental checkups are necessary as well. Follow these tips for good oral hygiene to prevent cavities:
- Use toothpaste that contains fluoride. Fluoride can stop and even reverse tooth decay, making it a powerful weapon in the fight against cavities.
- Brush your teeth at least twice per day, once in the morning and once before bed. If you can, brush your teeth after meals as well.
- Floss between your teeth daily to remove food particles and prevent plaque buildup.
- Visit the dentist regularly.
- Ask your dentist if you could benefit from dental sealants. A dental sealant is a plastic material added to the chewing surface of the teeth, usually the back teeth. The material fills in the pits and grooves to prevent tooth decay.
- Avoid frequent snacking and limit the amount of sweet, sticky foods you eat. Snacking can create a near-constant supply of tooth decay. Sugary, carbonated foods and beverages can also damage your enamel.
- If you do snack, rinse your mouth with an unsweetened beverage afterward to help remove food particles and bacteria from your mouth.
Taking good care of your teeth and gums is an important part of staying healthy. A buildup of bacteria in your mouth can be dangerous. The bacteria can travel from your mouth into your bloodstream to your heart, where it can cause endocarditis. Some research has also linked oral bacteria to the risk of heart disease, clogged arteries, and stroke, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Practice good oral hygiene and visit your dentist regularly. This can help you prevent and treat a buildup of harmful bacteria in your mouth, as well as cavities and gum disease.